Show + Tell = Sell (your writing)
As an English teacher (freshmen, sophomores, seniors, with a side of creative writing) I tend to pencil-mark on my student papers: “show, don’t tell.” And as a writer I strive to do the same when packaging my own words for my readers. Yet, showing versus telling wasn’t always so when it comes to popular reads of former times. For instance, take Dickens. Please. Okay, that’s mean. I would rather watch Dickens than read him. Why? My goodness, the man could go on (and on and on). From Bleak House (www.powells.com):
London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus,forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn-hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes-gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas, in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Well, to be fair, Dickens probably padded due to being paid for serializing his writing in magazines. However, it still is a ponderous bit of word slogging to get to the point. A modern-day rewrite would involve some snappy dialogue woven into an imagery-laden snapshot of a bigger picture.
I must confess although I dislike slogging I do sometimes get caught up in the books of writers of old who did more telling than showing. One writer I’ve taken up with is Bess Streeter Aldrich (see posting for Oh Pioneers).
Bess Streeter Aldrich (1881-1954) Elmwood (www.bessstreeteraldrich.org)
Bess Streeter Aldrich was one of Nebraska’s most widely read and enjoyed authors. Her writing career spanned forty-some years, during which she published over 160 short stories and articles, nine novels, one novella, two books of short stories, and one omnibus. In her work, she emphasized family values and recorded accurately Midwest pioneering history. One of her books, Miss Bishop, was made into the movie, Cheers for Miss Bishop; and her short story, “The Silent Stars Go By,” became the television show, The Gift of Love, starring Lee Remick and Angela Lansbury. Aldrich also served as a writer and consultant in Hollywood for Paramount Pictures.
If following my posts, you know I do enjoy a good pioneer story now and then. Having finished Spring Came On Forever I looked for more of her books. I found two of note: A Lantern in Her Hand and A White Bird Flying. Both center on Abbie Deal and her family who were Nebraska pioneers. These books took me a couple of weeks to read, not because they were fat tomes–no, they weighed in as doable under 250 pages. Whereas, I can whip through a contemporary read of 500 pages (Divergent by Veronica Roth) over the weekend. Why is that? I refer to a food analogy.
A bowl of blue corn chips is a tasty snack I munch through in a matter of minutes, while a bowl of vanilla frozen yogurt with a dash of boysenberry syrup and coconut flakes is a concoction I nibble and savor over a course of prolonged time. So it is with reading. Some books are munchers, tasty munchers, mind you, while others are meant to be savored a page at a time. It all depends on the mood I am in.
An excerpt from A White Bird Flying: page 70 (concerning Rush Week at College circa 1900s)
But some of the girls had other qualities,–graciousness, that seemed a part of them and not assumed, sincerity that showed in their conversation. Some were jolly with infectious laughter. At first, Laura met them curiously with some attention to their various characteristics; but after a time she grew tired, confused, unable to tell the ones she fancied from those she did not. And once in the mad rush, her mother happened to remember that Laura must go to the huge Coliseum to register for classes. It seemed a waste of time to Eloise, but after all, it was quite true that the studies must be given some thought also.
I certainly could not munch and crunch through a book with those types of passages, nor did I care to.
Journeying back to my title, I want to simply comment that whether or not you are showing your writing or choose the telling of your story, you will still sell what you are offering. It all depends on the audience. Munch, crunch, or savor, there is a book waiting on the shelf for the ready reader.
Yeah, I also keep telling writers: show don’t tell. Of course, you can’t do this in every page of a 400 page novel… but the focus is what matters. If they show enough, the reader won’t even notice the occasional telling narrative – necessary sometimes to sum up, but not to be an info dump or to represent lazy writing.
I just wish more people would listen and learn to use the right balance that works for them between showing and telling.
Nice post 🙂
Thanks, Samir. Whew–I thought I might be going off on a tangent. Writing is a balance of showing and telling, good point.
I always try to remember to “show, don’t tell” when writing fiction, and if I don’t I will happily think of Charles Dickens and feel better! Good point! 🙂